Vehicle systems hardest-hit as agency embarks on budget-driven reorganisation of aeronautics research

NASA’s email administrator hopes 31 January will be a busy day. That is the deadline for industry and academia to respond electronically to requests for information (RFI) issued by the agency at the start of the year as it rolled out its radically revised aeronautics programme.

A full mail box should be good news for NASA which, late in 2005, was forced to make some extremely tough decisions about its floundering aeronautics policy. Virtually overnight the agency abandoned its ambitious aeronautics blueprint and came up with a new plan that redirected all its activities towards fundamental research and “big picture implementation”.

Reshaping Aeronautics

Hardest hit was the vehicle systems programme, which had been gearing up to demonstrate “revolutionary technology concepts” through flight demonstrators that were “beyond the scope of conventional air vehicles”. Outlined in the fiscal year 2006 budget request, plans had been drawn up for subsonic noise, sonic-boom reduction, zero emissions and high-altitude long-endurance remotely operated aircraft demonstrators.

Vehicle systems has been replaced by fundamental aeronautics, while aviation safety and security becomes aviation safety. Airspace systems, aimed at increasing airspace capacity, is perhaps the least affected by the change, and is still focused on the development of concepts and technology for the US next-generation air traffic system (NGATS) for validation in 2020.


The reshaped plan, unveiled in detail for the first time by new NASA associate administrator Lisa Porter at the recent American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics meeting in Reno, Nevada, met a mixed response (Flight International, 17-23 January). While much of academia and industry welcomed the “grass roots” opportunity for renewed research activities across a broader realm of aerospace technology, others decried the abandonment of high-profile, focused demonstrators that appeared to offer the promise of direct, real-world applications and commercially feasible follow-on products.

sonic boom reduction demonstrator

Advocates of the new plan point out, however, that no matter how exciting the prospect of demonstrators towards the end of the decade might be, the reality of low funding was always going to threaten these ambitious plans. Aeronautics research, more and more the poor relation in NASA’s funding priorities, has long suffered from shrinking budgets, a situation not expected to improve as spending increases on space exploration as part of government-endorsed commitments to the revised National Space Policy. Aeronautics took just $1.05 billion out of NASA’s $9.46 billion budget in 2004 and will see this shrink to a relatively miserly $850 million out of a 2006 allocation of $9.6 billion.


If you want to get serious about revolutionary technology, you've got to invest in foundational research"

Realism about funding, and where best to spend its shrinking dollars, was therefore a priority to the agency as it sought to limit the long-term damage being done to its aeronautics research by the constant stop-go impacts of the budget conundrum. By shifting its focus to long-term, “cutting edge” integrated research, NASA appears to be protecting its foundations. Porter says the move means there will be no more “1,000 flowers blooming. We’ll take a holistic approach, and get a clearer idea of where and how it all fits together.”

The longer-term goals, sketched out to FY2015 in the case of fundamental aeronautics and FY2017 for airspace systems, are peppered with milestones to enable continual reassessment of the portfolio. Porter says this lets some short-term products emerge while sticking to long-term “revolutionary” goals. “We’ll be able to ask ‘how are we doing?’ – do we need to adjust it? How does that impact the portfolio? This approach also seeks to make the most of projects, program­mes and centres across the agency with no more ‘stove-piping’.”

Highlights of the revised structure include:

  • Fundamental aeronautics programme

Four “major thrust” areas include research into hypersonics, supersonics, subsonic fixed-wing and subsonic rotary-wing, and focuses on technology innovation as well as the development of integrated, multi-disciplinary evaluation tools. Hypersonics work includes the refinement of “reference” vehicles, with constant adjustments through to definition of the third reference vehicle in 2012 using the new tool set. Systems flight experiments, representing a limited opportunity for some form of demonstrator, are timetabled for around 2013.

Supersonic research work similarly shows a strong emphasis on predictive and analytical tools with a “Generation 2” validation scheduled for around 2015. Rotary-wing work also shows a strong focus on development of predictive tools for performance, as does the subsonic research, which includes Generation 1 and 2 validation experiments in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Each of these validations will incorporate advances garnered from parallel research work in propulsion/power systems, airframes, vehicle systems integration and testbeds. “Gen 1”, for example, will bring in engine work on advanced combustors using alternative fuels and high-power core technology, as well as low airframe noise work.

  • Aviation safety programme

This will focus on four major project areas as part of ongoing work to improve safety of both new and legacy aircraft, as well as to “overcome aircraft safety technological barriers that would otherwise constrain the full realisation of NGATS”. In particular, these include the integrated intelligent flightdeck; integrated resilient aircraft control (preventing loss-of- control accidents and providing autonomous vehicle mission management); integrated vehicle health management (self-recovery from malfunctions); and ageing aircraft and durability. The roadmap calls for definition of the next-generation health management by the end of 2016, validation assessment of integrated flightdeck technologies in 2015, assessment of a resilient aircraft control in 2016 and validation of a second generation of predictive system for the extended life of an airframe in the same year.

  • Airspace systems programme

Working closely with the US government’s Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), NASA plans to validate an initial NGATS around 2017, with a fully proven system scheduled by 2020. The work covers parallel developments of integrated solutions such as four-dimensional trajectory predictions, airspace simulation and modelling, multi-aircraft flow and airspace management, human factors and automation.

  • Aeronautics test programme

This covers the strategic use, operations, maintenance and investment in national asset test facilities at NASA’s Ames, Glenn and Langley research centres.

So what’s next? All the responses to the RFIs will be forwarded to project leaders in early February just as the agency issues a call for proposals to the various research centres. NASA centre proposals are due in early March, and in early May the agency plans to conduct the final approval of the proposals and release the first of a series of NASA research announcements (NRA) for foundational research. NRA proposals will be received by the end of June and awards are set for early September.

NASA believes the new focus will see the forging of new relationships with both academia and industry. The agency says “we will integrate students and faculty as true partners in our research projects”, and adds the process will “enable replenishment of the workforce at both NASA and industry”. As for industry itself, it says the move will “shift from near-term, evolutionary procurements to long-term, intellectual partnerships”. The bottom line, it adds, is stability for the future.

Underpinning the revised structure is a research pyramid approach designed, says NASA, for just this sort of stability – no matter what budget cuts are thrown at it.

Porter says: “At the top of the pyramid is the system design level, and at the base is fundamental research. If you want to get serious about revolutionary technology at the top of the pyramid then you’ve got to invest in foundational research. So we’re making sure we have a research plan that recognises that philosophy. The needs flow down from the top and the technology flows up from the base.”


Source: Flight International